Behind the new SAPM, a whole new plan

Published November 15, 2020
In this July file photo, MNA Malik Mohammad Amir Dogar meets Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad. — APP/File
In this July file photo, MNA Malik Mohammad Amir Dogar meets Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad. — APP/File

THE PTI government has planned a new phase of political outreach to get a grip on its electoral and governance problems and the appointment of Special Assistant to the PM (SAPM) on Political Affairs is a first step in this plan, Dawn has learnt.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a notification on Friday appointing PTI MNA and chief whip in the National Assembly Malik Mohammad Amir Dogar as the newest member of the federal cabinet, bringing the total composition of the cabinet to 52. According to official sources, Amir Dogar, PTI legislator from Multan, has been brought in to fill a vacuum that officials now acknowledge privately has become one of the government’s critical weaknesses.

This weakness — which has aggravated since the opposition alliance PDM launched its anti-government campaign — is summed up like this: the inability of the PTI leadership to keep its elected members at the national and provincial levels in good stead by giving them due attention and getting their issues and problems solved on a continual basis.

In the absence of such a mechanism within the party, the grievances and frustrations of the MNAs and MPAs have been piling up ominously at a time when the government is busy fending off the threat from the PDM.

PTI sources say Amir Dogar has been given the designation held by the late Naeem-ul-Haq. However, whereas Naeem-ul-Haq dealt more with issues within the PM Secretariat in his capacity as a close aide of the PM, Dogar has been tasked to work closely with the ruling party’s elected representatives and get their constituency issues resolved on a fast track.

But there is more to this new PTI plan.

Sources in the ruling party reveal that this plan germinated within a small group of senior PTI members who have been working closely with Prime Minister Imran Khan for many years. These ‘party elders’ make an interesting crew. At least two are hardened and experienced constituency politicians with deep understanding of how to manage political networks in their provinces. The other two have hands-on knowledge of government systems and processes. They are also efficient in getting things done through the maze of official processes. All four have convenient access to the prime minister which is a key advantage in getting quick approvals and swift follow-ups.

This group of ‘elders’ recognised the existence of a problem that many among their colleagues were either refusing to admit or acknowledge or express. These elders — all cabinet ministers — agreed that a deadly combination of political mismanagement and governance mishandling was weakening their party’s electoral strength as well as image. The harsh official rhetoric on accountability was fine, but denying the reality that all was not well and thereby failing to take appropriate action was an act of wilful omission that could cost PTI dearly in the next elections. They acknowledged that recent surveys were showing fairly clearly that their voters were not happy with them.

These party elders — whom Dawn is not naming at their request — discussed various options, came up with a viable strategy, formulated a line of action with specifics, and took their plan to the prime minister. After a lot of debate and discussion, they were able to get an approval from the PM on the following things:

(a) Appointing an SAPM to manage all political problems of parliamentarians; (b) devising plans to fix governance problems with a special focus on Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; (c) using their official clout and gravitas to get these plans implemented on the ground; (d) and build a working relationship with the opposition in the National Assembly and Senate.

The prime minister, according to sources, was not comfortable with softening the approach towards the opposition. These sources say, however, that the four elders were able to convince the prime minister that they would be able to reach out to the opposition benches to build a basic relationship without diluting the prime minister’s policy on accountability. The prime minister was also not in favour of making any top level changes in Punjab. There is deep concern within the higher echelons of the party about the way Punjab is being run but they admit, although grudgingly, that the prime minister is not inclined to bring in a new chief minister there. The group of elders therefore decided that the best option was to help the current chief minister govern the province.

It was only after the prime minister’s approval to all these points that the notification for the appointment of Amir Dogar as SAPM Political Affairs was issued on Friday. The plan, they say, is on.

The timing coincides with a similar wave of disgruntlement within the ruling party in Punjab. Sources confirm that earlier this week three members of the Punjab cabinet arrived in Islamabad on a special mission. This mission was mandated to them by a larger group of their cabinet colleagues that numbered more than a dozen. These sources say the three provincial ministers’ mission took them to the Prime Minister’s Office. There, sitting in front of the prime minister, they poured their hearts out about the problems in Punjab. The key points they relayed to the prime minister included:

(a) The bureaucracy is not working in the province as it should and this has severely impacted governance; (b) Lahore has become a “trash can” because of severe mismanagement in municipal services and this is damaging the image of PTI; (c) many cabinet ministers are demotivated as there is no system of rewards and punishments and it appears no one cares if anyone is performing or not. In other words, there is little accountability and a lot of infighting within the government; (d) the political work of allies gets prioritised by the bureaucracy because of their past connections and PTI legislators are being neglected.

The PTI insiders privy to these developments say the prime minister gave the provincial ministers a patient hearing. They, however, do not know what steps, if any, he plans to take to address these issues. These insiders emphasised that the three provincial ministers who came to see the PM, and the more than a dozen who sent them to speak on their behalf, are all old party loyalists and not the ones who joined PTI just prior to the 2018 elections.

There is a larger context to these developments which PTI leaders in Islamabad are aware of. PML-N top leaders acknowledge that when Maryam Nawaz said in her BBC interview that there had been some indirect contacts between the establishment and her party people, she was referring to indications that PDM parties could be provided some political space within the existing set-up. These PML-N sources admit that there is nothing concrete on the table but there has been some talk of change in Punjab with the PML-N possibly finding a not-so-simple way back to power. At the same time, some indications have also been given that Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his JUI-F could be incentivised in the Senate. However, for now there is little reason to believe that PML-N or other PDM parties are considering these options as viable.

PTI, however, is taking this as an opportunity to try and put its own federal and provincial houses in order. The public face of this new grand plan will be SAPM Political Affairs but the larger strategy and its implementation will be powered by the four elders who have the go-ahead from the prime minister.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2020

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